Today, Monday, 24 August, Ukrainians the world over are in high spirits as their homeland celebrates Independence Day. But as the celebratory mood takes hold, a researcher at the University of Alberta-based Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, says relations between Russia and Ukraine, especially among their nationals who are living outside those respective countries, continue to be strained.
Mykola Soroka says Russia-Ukraine relations are framed by long-standing 'fraternal rivalry,' imperial and colonial experience and a complex understanding of identity that are still at work today. His paper on this topic recently appeared in the journal Nationalities Papers.
'One of the main factors that determined Russian-Ukrainian relations abroad was the highly contested issue of national identity,' Soroka said. 'The concept of Ukraine was clearly a factor that undermined this idyllic all-Russian wholeness. It was strengthened by Ukraine's struggle for political independence, which was treated as an act of betrayal.'
Inter-ethnic relations between the two countries have been the focus of researchers for many years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, but Soroka says little has been done in examining the relations between the two groups outside their respective countries. Thus, he began to look at the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian emigrants between the first and second world wars, the period from 1920 and 1939.
However, perhaps the biggest influence on Ukrainian-Russian relations came during the Russian Revolution of 1917, a battle brought to Ukraine's doorstep and one Soroka says is sometimes regarded as the struggle between good and evil.
While Russians generally think of the revolution in 1917 as a battle among old, monarchist, totalitarian Bolsheviks and new democratic forces, Soroka says Ukrainians regard the fighting as the struggle that led directly to the independence they enjoy today. 'The revolution changed the relationship between Ukrainians and Russians living abroad from a relatively peaceful coexistence before the revolution to restrictive and hostile relations between the two Slavic groups.'
From this research, Soroka discovered that Russians had a negative attitude towards Ukraine's independence. He found that Russians and Ukrainians living abroad regard themselves as distinct nationals, compared to when they lived in their respective countries, with Ukraine under Russian-controlled Soviet Union. The threats posed by their new social and cultural surroundings in countries they emigrated to forced them to stick firmly to their communities and oppose initial assimilation.
'The distinctiveness of the Russian and Ukrainian groups was also cemented by their conscious stance of being cultural ambassadors whose mission it was to preserve their national culture and present it to the world,' he said.
Ukrainians living abroad, however, were more than just cultural ambassadors. According to Soroka, they had the added task of presenting themselves as liberators, while Russians enjoyed more favour from official circles in European countries.
'The biggest emigre newspaper, Posledniie novosti, published a speech in 1939 by a French parliamentarian named Retord, who stated that Ukraine was an invention,' Soroka said.
Soroka said the attitudes between Ukrainians and Russians living abroad were very complex and resulted in 'ghettoisation,' which he says in this instance refers to the groups' formation of cohesive groups based on their individual identify.
'In general, 'ghettoised' characteristics prevailed in both communities,' said Soraka. 'This was altogether natural, as their efforts were directed mainly at preserving group identity.'
Peter Khule, a philanthropist who was born three years after the revolution and who immigrated to Canada in the late-'30s, said there has always been animosity between the two countries and that it will take a move by Russia for things to change.
'As long the Russians don't change their attitude towards Ukraine, the relationship of animosity will continue. Russia needs to respect the independence of Ukraine,' Kule said.